Way back in the paleolithic era, also known as September 1984, I was driving cross-country to a Congressional internship. I was listening to a local radio station that was broadcasting live from a campaign event for then-President Reagan. To warm up the crowd, the campaign played Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” and in the background I could here the crowd scream the refrain. (I’m not sure it is the same event, but an article on the Ronald Reagan Rock in Hammonton, New Jersey sums things up pretty well.)
The sheer obliviousness shocked me: even a quick listen to the lyrics reveals that “Born in the U.S.A.” is not an affirmation of the greatness of the United States, but an exclamation against the shortchanging of a large portion of the American people: even though the song’s narrator was “Born in the U.S.A.,” “the first kick I took was when I hit the ground,” and since Vietnam it’s been “ten years down the road, nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.” This was not the storyline for an incumbent’s re-election campaign. Springsteen complained, and the campaign stopped using the song.
It is a presidential election year once again, and once again, the presidential campaigns’ choice of music is getting them into trouble. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his campaign have been sued for using Survivor’s anthem, Eye of the Tiger, from the movie Rocky III. (Worse, Survivor frontman Dave Bickler retaliated by reading from Gingrich’s latest book “A Nation Like No Other”). Rep. Michelle Bachmann used Tom Petty’s “American Girl” until he got wind of it. Four years ago, Jackson Browne sued the Republican Party and John McCain for copyright infringement and false endorsement for using “Running on Empty” without permission.
There are issues of both copyright infringement and trademark infringement. Artists and other copyright owners are entitled to royalties when their works are played – that is what copyright is all about. However, for politically active artists, having those they disagree with using their works could tarnish the artist’s “brand.” Browne’s claims for false endorsement and a likelihood of confusion survived a motion to dismiss by Sen. McCain and the other defendants, who eventually settled the case.
National Public Radio has a good article on the pitfalls of campaign music: since they play the music in various locales, campaigns need licenses to legally play the songs. Both President Obama’s and Gov. Romney’s campaigns have created their own official campaign music lists, and have (presumably) cleared their use with the copyright holders. Former Senator Clinton’s 2008 Presidential campaign even had people vote for the official campaign song.
Campaigns use music the same way most of us do: to inspire, to create a connection. Speaker Gingrich probably wanted voters to associate him with Rocky, fighting against the odds after having taken a hard fall. However, what works in our personal lives doesn’t always translate well in a public venue. Political campaigns have gradually come to realize that ignoring the rights (and lyrics) of copyrighted songs doesn’t work.